After-work stories from Bundelkhand
Women from Siddhupur village talk as they harvest
IT WAS THE time of monsoon, or sawan bhadon, the most romantic of all seasons. Bundelkhand in eastern Uttar Pradesh is a serene vista of lush paddy fields. In the wake of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns last year, however, the land had fallen silent. Unusually, for that time of year, there were a few swings hanging down from leafy trees, nor were there gaggles of women sitting in them and singing. Buses and shared autos ran almost empty, sans women dressed in colourful saris and jingling bangles, returning to their maternal homes. Covid had clearly dampened the festive season, especially for women. In Bundelkhand, monsoon is the time of festivities such as teej, dedhiya, diwali, and mahubuliya. It is when women flock back home to reunite with families and childhood friends. It is a time to eat well, sing loudly, and reminisce. It is a time when women enjoy hard-earned moments of leisure.
Last year, as humankind grappled with a shape-shifting virus, we occupied ourselves with looking at how women experience and inhabit leisure. What does a working day for women look like? Where does their kaam (work) end and their aaram (rest) begin?
The pandemic brought to light a truth universally known but not often acknowledged: women are disproportionately facing the effects of a crisis of this magnitude. We have entered a period of ‘she-cession’, during which we will lose the progress made towards gender equality over two decades. Women were employed in many of the jobs that were axed. They are not as likely as men to be rehired; even if they are, they face steeper pay cuts and precarious work conditions. Reproductive labour—unwaged and uncounted work of women—has seen a definite increase. Globally, women are pulling almost a second shift (nearly eight hours) in care work. Women are not only putting more hours into cooking, cleaning and caring but they are also investing significant emotional and mental labour to ensure that their families have enough to eat and feel cared for in the time of the pandemic. The first national ‘Time Use Survey’, released last year, records nearly five hours of unpaid work by women as compared to an hour and a half by men. Gender, caste and class continue to be important axes structuring the socioeconomic cleavages relating to how Indians spend their hours in a day, who is forced to work for subsistence, and who has the opportunity of leisure. Time use data shows that Adivasi and Dalit women spend the most time in unwaged work and have the least amount of leisure.
Between October and December, landless Dalit women work in the paddy fields of Chitrakoot district. From 10 am until sunset, paddy is arduously harvested, threshed and winnowed. Women bend their bodies into a V-shape to harvest the crop, flail their arms to manually beat out the grain from its husk, and manually separate the chaff from several quintals of unhusked rice. On many occasions, they also sow a relay crop of lentil or chickpea to fully utilise the remaining moisture in the soil. Nor is there any respite when they finally return home; now the house must be cleaned, water must be drawn, dinner must be cooked, and children must be looked after. In And Still they Dance, Stephanie Urdang, sketches the gendered contours of the image of agricultural worker in Mozambique in these terms: “a woman in her machamba, bent over double, hoeing, sowing, weeding, under clear skies and hot sun. Sometimes this work is done with a baby on her back…But when she returns home from the fields, the women’s work is only partially done. The food has to be processed—hours of pounding with a large pestle into a mortar, removing the husks from rice, pounding the maize into flour, grinding peanuts. The lighting of the fire comes only after hours of searching for fuel. Water for cooking, washing dishes, for ablutions, must also be collected. And all the while, unless a woman is infertile or past child-bearing age, she is constantly pregnant or breast-feeding.” This image of women producers is frequently repeated not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but also throughout India, where 80 per cent of food production is carried out by women.
On a chilly November morning in Manikpur, we spotted a few Kol women warming themselves in front of a fire. Legs were stretched out and chitchat was in the air. This was a rare occasion of repose for these women, who usually began their day at 4 am when they marched out to the forests of Manikpur to collect firewood. Soniya’s illness had given them an opportunity to take a day off from their gruelling schedules. It also gave us a chance to sit down and talk to them about leisure. “We will rest when we finally die,” says Rajamani. They walk every morning for about two kilometres to fetch water. They cook food—bhaji, roti these days—for their children and family members. Then they set out in small groups, carrying axes, towards the jungle in a five-kilometre radius, where they chop branches off tendu and palash trees. It is painfully strenuous work, for the trees are surrounded by thorny shrubs. It takes them a few hours every day to collect approximately 50-60 kg of firewood, which they tie into a gattha or bundle, and balance it on their head. Before lifting these heavy bundles, they secure their waists by cinching them with a cloth. “Our bodies ache all the time, the head hurts, the back hurts, and our shoulders hurt too,” Soniya tells us. The monotony of their work is only interrupted by their garrulity, “this is our aaram, rest.” They return home around midday to eat the leftovers and check on their children. Then they take the 50-kg gattha to the market on foot, on tractors, or in trains. Before the pandemic, they carried their bundles even to different districts. Selling firewood is mainly women’s work; a bundle fetches them around a hundred rupees. On days of low demand, their asking price drops and time spent in the market increases. Before they are homeward bound in the evening, there is grocery shopping to be done and toys and snacks to be picked up for their children.
Dinner is made and served, and the house is cleaned before hitting the bed. In just a few hours, the punishing schedule will start all over again.
“I don’t think I have bought new clothes in two years,” says Soniya to Rajamani. But once a week, the Kol women of the village gather to comb one another’s hair. All the hair that has fallen out is collected and exchanged for knick-knacks, bangles, and bindis—bright, colourful things brought by travelling salesmen. In the nearby village of Rampuriya, our attention is at once drawn to a flock of giggling Kol women, who have come from different parts of the district to give a potential bride the once-over. This is the first time they have stepped out of their homes in pandemic times and undertaken a journey. They have set a clear precedent for the Kol community—women don’t generally accompany men on such visits. However, on this wintry noon, these women have seized the day and cast aside some age-old customs. The potential bride is forgotten for old friends and juicy gossip. Laughter is everywhere.
Over the last two years, we have observed that the concept of kaam is inextricably linked to that of aaram, especially for poor, rural women. “When we take a break from our never-ending work, we call that rest. Women can’t think of leisure for its own sake,” Kalavati, an NGO worker in Bundelkhand tells us. In Dataura village, Muslim women tell us they try to create forms of work so that people would not think they are just sitting idly, doing nothing. We find them picking lice from each other’s hair one sunny afternoon—“this is our rest,” they tell us, with a chuckle. Dalit women from Siddhupur tell us that women have internalised patriarchy so much so that when they see men working, they take over at once. They also tell us that leisure has no space in their lives, whereas tension lives rent-free. The strain of providing for their families on low wages from precarious work has begun to show on the women. Their platelet counts have dropped, they are weak from persistent anaemia, and their bodies perpetually ache. They often choose not to receive medical attention and preserve their limited financial resources towards staving off hunger. “Our work is invisible, so is our tiredness,” says Savitri.
Dalit women from Siddhupur tell us that women have internalised patriarchy so much so that when they see a man working they take over. They add that leisure has no space in their life, whereas tension lives rent-free
‘Basanti—Women at Leisure’ is a social media project that documents the ordinariness of women’s lives, capturing quotidian moments when they breathe, laugh, play, sing, dream, sleep, eat ice creams, braid each other’s hair, and read books. Women doing nothing counts as radical acts of self-care and self-love. These moments are remarkable in their its ordinariness; think about it, why is an image of men playing cards in the park or our fathers reading newspapers with a cup of tea not as odd as our mothers and aunts climbing trees or playing football? Even in our numerous conversations with women across rural Bundelkhand, we came across only one woman who spoke of pleasure as leisure. “Having good sex is fun, that’s what I like to do in my free time,” she told us happily, as hysterical laughter rang out all around her. Basanti uses a feminist gaze because it takes women out of their roles as workers in a society where their work is seen as reproductive, not productive, and where they are remunerated, if at all, in the “coin of love, virtue”, and leisure. Silvia Federici famously wrote in the book Wages Against Housework, “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work. They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism. Every miscarriage is a work accident…Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational diseases of the housewife.”
However, such moments of leisure are rarely experienced by Dalit women. The languid woman in Raja Ravi Varma’s portrait of a “dark skinned low caste” agricultural worker is a creature of myth. In the research paper, ‘Narrativizing Oppression and Suffering:
Theorizing Slavery’ former slave women in Kerala retell their experience of working in paddy fields (Note that paddy cultivation is predominantly carried out by women). Slave women were given “no respite—even immediately after childbirth. Within a day or two of giving birth, the landlord comes to the hut of the untouchable labourer and orders the woman to the field to transplant paddy—tasks that involve severe physical strain. To do this, women must stand bent over in knee-deep mud and water without proper rest. She bleeds…the day’s labour exhausts her; at a distance she hears the hungry cry of her newborn child that gradually dims into a faint sobbing. Her breasts are tight with the pain of the milk that should be fed to her baby. The strain on her body and mind become unbearable. Picking up a bunch of paddy saplings, she feeds her breast milk to their tender mossy roots.”
‘365 Days of Invisible Work’ is a virtual repository where photographs of workers and their forms of work are stored. Photos submitted by workers from across the world are categorised in terms of rooms—bedroom, living room, bathroom, kitchen, and so on— and feelings—alienation, invisibility, agency, leisure, and loneliness. These living archives clearly show the interrelationships between work and the worker. Your work determines how you dwell in these rooms and what you feel when living in them. In many photos, female housemaids are rendered invisible in their rooms, feeling lonely, and having no time to themselves. In rural Bundelkhand too, Dalit women are to be found everywhere, from fields to labour chowks and crowded markets, forever working. But crucially, not at leisure.
Thus, Asha is a cleaner who is contractually employed by the district’s municipality. Nearly all the cleaning staff at Chitrakoot’s municipality are Dalit; Asha is among the few women working there. “I work from 5 am to noon. Eight hours of non-stop work. The men usually get a chai break. If I stop work for even a minute, I am called lazy. Caste slurs are flung at me,” Asha tells us. Her efficiency is rewarded only with more discrimination. None of the workers is given protective gear to clean out drains and sewers, so Asha wraps her hands in plastic bags to do it manually. She is faster and better than others at her job, but they will not touch a cup of tea if she were to serve it. To feed and educate her four children, she accepts loneliness, humiliation and lack of leisure as occupational hazards.
Outside Siddhupur village, on an evening in October, we find four Dalit women harvesting the chickpea crop. By day, Savitri, Sundariya, Laxmi, Samman are housewives and daily-wage labourers. Their day starts early with housework and childcare, after which they walk to the nearest town’s labour chowk to look for work. They will not be picked up for hard manual labour, even though they can carry more than their body weight. If they are hired, they won’t receive the same wages as men. Sometimes, they will be completely overlooked because they are Dalit. Sometimes, they will only find a half day’s work— cleaning the rubble at a construction site or in domestic work. From October to February, they will be called to clear out chickpea fields. Payment will be made in kind, and they will get bhaji, the leafy stalks of the chickpea crop to take home. “And now because of the price rise, for five months, we will only eat bhaji and roti,” Savitri jokes wryly. Working in the chickpea field is harder than paddy cultivation. The women must remain barefoot, bend down and cut the bhaji. Their feet sink unevenly into the slushy mud. Their clothes are inevitably soiled. Their dupatta is folded into the shape of a basket to collect the bhaji. Worse, the chickpea crop attracts a prickly weed, which cuts into their fingers as they pluck the stalks. When we ask them what they do with their free time, they say, “this is what we do with our free time!”
We set out last year with the aim of documenting how women in our region, especially Dalit women, experience leisure, if at all. Since much of women’s work and time are not counted as productive, and are seen as hobbies or leisure, we regard it necessary to enumerate the different forms of women’s work in detail. We find that it is not possible to talk of aaram in the lives of these Indian women without talking about kaam. We do not ask “can women have it all”? Instead, we turn to Kalpana, a smart cookie from Madhumita Dutta’s Mobile Girls Koottam who works in a mobile phone assembly factory in Tamil Nadu. She declares, “You can live only if you struggle!” In conversations with fellow factory workers, they talk about work and why the social life around work matters. Their discussions do not just revolve around wages but are filled with matters of — “a social life of work saturated with feelings and emotions. Yet, we are conscious of its fragility, how it can be ruptured by the ruthless forces of patriarchy, caste, class, global capital. Therefore, to be free, to live, to love, we have to struggle.”